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Rights groups warn China's persecution of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang "turbocharged" by big data

China expands detention sites in Xinjiang
China expands detention sites in Xinjiang 05:39

Beijing — Muslims in China's Xinjiang were "arbitrarily" selected for arrest by a computer program that flagged purportedly suspicious behavior, activists said Wednesday in a report detailing big data's role in repression in the restive region. The U.S.-based NGO Human Rights Watch said leaked police data that listed over 2,000 detainees from the Aksu prefecture was further evidence of "how China's brutal repression of Xinjiang's Turkic Muslims is being turbocharged by technology."

Beijing has come under intense international criticism over its policies in the resource-rich territory, where rights groups say as many as one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been held in internment camps.

China defends the facilities as vocational training centers aimed at stamping out terrorism and improving employment opportunities.

FILE PHOTO: A Chinese police officer takes his position by the road near what is officially called a vocational education centre in Yining
A Chinese police officer takes guards a road near what is officially called a vocational re-education center in Yining, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, September 4, 2018. THOMAS PETER/REUTERS

Surveillance spending in Xinjiang has ballooned in recent years, with facial recognition, iris scanners, DNA collection and artificial intelligence deployed across the province in the name of preventing terrorism.

HRW said it had obtained the list — which detailed detentions from mid-2016 to late 2018 — from an anonymous source that had previously provided audiovisual content taken from inside a facility in Aksu.

The group gave an example of a "Mrs T" — detained for "links with sensitive countries" who was listed as having received a number of calls from a foreign number which belonged to her sister.

A look at China's efforts to silence Muslims 09:05

Researchers at the NGO spoke to the woman and learned that police had interrogated her sister in Xinjiang, but she has had no direct contact with her family in the province since.

The people were flagged using a program called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, which collected data from surveillance systems in Xinjiang, before officials decided whether to send them to camps, according to HRW.

The group said its research suggests the "vast majority" of people were flagged to authorities for legal behavior, including phone calls to relatives abroad, having no fixed address or switching off their phone repeatedly.

Only around 10% of the people on the list were detained for terrorism or extremism.

The list, parts of which were shown to AFP, described the reason for detention of many of the people as simply being "flagged" by the integrated platform.

The rights group has not published the full contents of the list, citing safety concerns for the person who leaked it.

China's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Wednesday accused Human Rights Watch of "stirring up trouble," saying the report was "not worth refuting."

The local Aksu government, as well as Xinjiang's regional authorities, did not immediately respond to AFP's requests for comment.

Inside Huawei, China's Tech Giant
A Huawei employee walks by a display for facial recognition cameras at the company's Bantian campus on April 26, 2019 in Shenzhen, China. Kevin Frayer/Getty

Separately, U.S.-based surveillance research firm IPVM said in a report Tuesday that Chinese telecoms giant Huawei had been involved in testing facial recognition software that could send alerts to police when it recognized Uighur minorities' faces.

An internal Huawei report cited by IPVM — which has been removed from the company's website but is still visible in Google searches — showed the software as passing tests for "Uighur alerts" and "recognition based on age, sex, ethnicity, angle of facial images."

Huawei said Wednesday that the program, "has not seen real-world application," and that the company "only supplies general-purpose products for this kind of testing."

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